Former South Korean military dictator Chun Doo-hwan died Tuesday at his home at the age of 90. Victims of his authoritarian regime and democracy activists are determined to continue the fight for historical justice even after his death.
Chun Doo-hwan, an army general at the time, seized power in 1979 through a military coup.
While Chun oversaw significant economic achievements during his rule, his legacy is marred by records of severe human rights violations.
Chun is held to be responsible for one of the bloodiest massacres in modern South Korean history: the Gwangju massacre.
In May 1980, more than 15,000 students took to the streets of the southwestern city of Gwangju to call for the end of Chun’s military dictatorship.
When Chun’s forces arrived in the city, local government figures showed they killed more than 200 civilians, injured several thousand, and arrested more than 1,800 civilians.
Forty-one years later, the military strongman died in his home in Seoul, leaving no apology behind.
Now, families of victims and survivors of the Gwangju massacre are grappling with Chun’s sudden death.
Lee Gi-bong, who heads a civic group formed by victims of the Gwangju incident, said Chun’s death did not resolve the trauma.
He said that the criminals who wielded state violence lived long lives and died in wealth. Meanwhile, he says, the pain of Gwangju citizens continues.
Though Chun’s passing has left an open wound, many victims are determined to prevent his death from burying the truth of Gwangju.
Lee Jae-eui participated in the uprising as a university student.
He said it’s regrettable Chun denied the massacre and his responsibility until the very end. But now, he said survivors must attend to the historical task of completing the fact-finding mission in order to tie up the loose ends without him.
The crackdown still provokes political tension. Many of Chun’s conservative followers defend the use of force. They allege, without evidence, that the protests in Gwangju were directed by North Korean infiltrators. Gwangju citizens often still face accusations they were communist spies threatening national security.
Last month, conservative presidential candidate Yoon Seok-youl came under criticism for praising Chun’s political skills, “aside from the coup and the events of May 1980.”
Yoon later visited Gwangju to apologize for his remark but was blocked by protesters from entering the victims’ altar. Instead, he delivered a silent tribute at the entrance.
Lee, the former Gwangju protester, said true healing and reconciliation will never be achieved while people continue to spread unfounded accusations. He said only when the shadows of Chun’s influence are fully lifted from South Korean society will the country be able to make meaningful progress towards democracy.
After Chun’s death, about 70 victims of the Gwangju massacre filed a lawsuit against the government, alleging emotional trauma.
It’s further evidence that even though a dark chapter of South Korea’s history has closed, much of the trauma remains unresolved.
Source: Voice of America